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British Columbia Vancouver's illegal medical marijuana dispensaries could face court action

Marijuana is pictured at a Vancouver dispensary on April 28, 2015.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

As many as three-quarters of Vancouver's illegal cannabis dispensaries have been ordered to close by Friday, though it's a deadline many are expected to ignore, setting off a process of fines and potential court actions that could take months to resolve.

When the country's first set of rules targeting pot shops takes effect, the city is opting to ticket – not raid – dispensaries that have been rejected in a continuing process to hand out a small number of coveted business licences. Those tickets could start a drawn-out battle that could last until after the federal government introduces legislation to legalize recreational marijuana next year.

More than 100 illegal cannabis dispensaries opened throughout Vancouver in recent years, prompting the city to introduce rules designed to simultaneously regulate the storefronts while also curbing their numbers. One rule said that dispensaries must be located at least 300 metres from other stores, schools or community centres.

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A process to award those licences has been under way since last August. Currently, 20 have passed at least the first stage of the licensing process, with the first business licence expected to be granted next month. City staff are reviewing another 19 applications for dispensaries that are too close to one another to decide which might be able to remain open.

All of them are permitted to remain open in the meantime.

The rest – roughly 60 shops – could face bylaw officers by the weekend if they remain open.

Ian Dawkins, executive director of Cannabis Growers of Canada, says he expects about a third of those dispensaries to close voluntarily by Friday, another third to switch to a more secretive model, and the rest – those with deeper pockets – to fight the city in court.

"They're going to say 'screw it, we're keeping our doors open, if you want to come at us, we've got lawyers,' " said Mr. Dawkins, whose group represents more than 15 Vancouver dispensaries.

Andreea Toma, Vancouver's director of licensing, said starting Saturday bylaw officers will fan out to canvass the city for those shops operating in violation of the bylaw. Violators can face immediate penalties up to $750 a day. After that, city lawyers could go to court to seek larger fines of $10,000 or apply for an injunction at B.C. Supreme Court, which could be enforced by police, she said.

Chuck Varabioff, who owns the B.C. Pain Society, said he will not close his store by Friday, even though it is 93 metres from a school and does not meet the buffer zone requirement.

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"I will have a stack of postdated cheques lined up on my desk and when the city comes in I'll happily hand them 100 postdated cheques," he said.

Ms. Toma said the 45 shops appealing to the city's board of variance, an independent panel that can grant exemptions to city bylaws, will have to shut down while they await decisions.

Kirk Tousaw, a lawyer who helped force the government to overhaul its existing medical marijuana system in February, said it is fundamentally unfair for the city to shut down a dozen of his Vancouver clients' dispensaries as they wait for the board to hear their appeals.

"If you're in an administrative tribunal, as part of a process that exists in the city, then enforcement action against those people in the system is totally inappropriate," said Mr. Tousaw, who planned to attend an emergency meeting of a large group of dispensary owners in downtown Vancouver Tuesday evening.

Councillor Kerry Jang, governing Vision Vancouver's spokesman on marijuana issues, said the city has the budget to deal with any litigation that may arise from weeding out the majority of pot shops. He added that he has no sympathy for those left out of a regulatory process they voluntarily entered last year.

"We gave them six months, I repeat six months, to find an alternate location that met the bylaw, I don't know what they have to complain about," Mr. Jang said.

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The cost of a business licence is $1,000 for compassion clubs, which are non-profit businesses that must offer other therapies, and $30,000 for medical marijuana stores.

Vancouver became the first city in Canada to adopt regulations for pot stores, after the sector grew by 100 per cent a year from mid-2013 to mid-2015. The city passed the bylaw last June, despite objections from the Conservative federal government, which repeatedly asked Vancouver police to "enforce the law" and shut down the roughly 100 dispensaries operating at that time.

Provincial politicians have been pushing for pot to be sold through liquor stores or pharmacies – not dispensaries – once recreational use is made legal next spring. Regardless of where recreational cannabis is eventually distributed, the City of Vancouver has said face-to-face sales of the drug must follow these rules.

Mr. Dawkins said he, and many in the currently illegal sector, see the city's looming crackdown as heavy-handed and premature because "these dispensaries that have been operating safely and quietly for a number of years now."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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